Violent Youths' Sentences Under Fire

Lengthy Record Of Suspect In Shooting Of Girl, 5, Puts Lens On Juvenile Justice System

July 19, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,

At 17, Lamont Davis has been arrested 15 times since age 10, including charges of drug dealing, carjacking with a handgun and assaults. Yet he's spent just a handful of weeks in juvenile treatment facilities over the years and was sent home in July after admitting to charges in a robbery.

Days later, the Baltimore teen was arrested on charges that he critically wounded a 5-year-old girl as he shot at another youth.

That Davis now faces more serious criminal charges than ever, city prosecutors and some public officials say, highlights a dangerous problem in the juvenile justice system: Because it emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment, teens who are lightly sanctioned for early offenses sometimes graduate to more violent crimes. Some, including the city's top prosecutor, are calling for better ways to deal with young offenders, including charging more of them as adults and lengthening the time they can spend in custody or under supervision.

"There are some kids who have exhausted all of the resources that the juvenile system offers," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. "There are some young people who are not capable of being rehabilitated in the juvenile system, and we need to find another way to deal with those people. Community programs and short detentions is not addressing the issue."

The statistics, prosecutors say, bear out what they see in court every day: More than half of the juveniles who return to their communities after the most serious sanction available in juvenile court - an out-of-home placement - are in handcuffs again within a year, according to state data. Three-quarters of them have been rearrested within three years.

"The total process needs to be changed on all levels," Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said in a recent interview. "The number of young people involved in violent crime has increased. It has escalated to the point where it's gotten all of us at the table to better collaborate."

Last year, about 4,200 Baltimore youths faced juvenile charges. Of the ones found responsible for crimes, about 1,100 were removed from their homes to locked facilities, structured foster care and other places. Another 2,300 received services in the community, through programs such as family therapy and electronic home monitoring, or were supervised informally.

Officials at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, which oversees young offenders at facilities and in their communities, counter that the system - though not always perfect - is working.

"Do I think that we need to be concerned that juvenile offenders are not being held accountable? No. They are being held accountable. We have 1,200 locked up today [statewide]," said Juvenile Services Secretary Donald W. DeVore. "Generally, if you compare the juvenile system and what's available to help kids, there's no suggestion we would be better off by sending them to the adult system."

DeVore, juvenile experts and public defenders point to research showing that young people have brains different from adults and should be treated differently when they commit crimes. To punish them like adults can have unintended consequences, they say.

A juvenile who serves time in an adult prison will be schooled by more experienced criminals and hardened by what studies show is the harsh treatment they receive there. Some studies show as much as a 100 percent rearrest rate for juveniles who are released from adult prisons.

"The most punitive approach might not get us the most public safety," said Tracy Vel?zquez, executive director of the Justice Police Institute in Washington. "The adult system does not have age-appropriate resources."

But prosecutors say young offenders often don't receive the kinds of sanctions that will change their behavior.

Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Rallo, a juvenile prosecutor for five years, gave several examples of sentences that horrified her. There was the young drug dealer sent home to his 23-year-old sister after he admitted to repeatedly shooting an addict who'd backed out of a buy. He was quickly arrested again for selling drugs. There was the boy who got a brief stint in reform school after using a gun to hold a family hostage in a home invasion. Within a year after returning home, he'd been arrested four times on drug charges.

Maryland's juvenile system, Rallo said, "was not created for the types of offenders we're seeing today."

The law guiding when juveniles are treated as adults is 40 years old and hasn't been amended in 15 years. Fourteen-year-olds accused of first-degree murder, rape or sex offense and 16-year-olds charged with most other violent crimes are automatically charged as adults, though defense attorneys can - and often do - persuade judges to move their clients to juvenile court.

Prosecutors have urged a reluctant state legislature to add more crimes, particularly gang-related assaults and drug dealing, to the list of offenses for which a teen is charged as an adult.

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